Jul 25, 2011

The Takeaway From L.A.

The TCG Conference in Los Angeles, now more than a month in the past, was bittersweet for me. I've been back to the city I called home for nearly half my life many times before, but this time it was a trip in which L.A. theater was one of the subjects, the unanswered question in the air, a bone of contention and/or cause for celebration. That was precisely my beat/turf/community for most of my time in L.A., so this particular trip brought all the old crusades and conflicts, the Pyrrhric victories and beautiful burnouts, and many of the same familiar faces, flooding back with the force of the Santa Ana winds.

To walk around Downtown L.A. between LATC, REDCAT, the Biltmore, and the Music Center, where the conference and Radar L.A. were held, had an extra pang for me, since my first journo job was at the Downtown News in the days when the old LATC company had its brief, furious life, Disney Hall wasn't even a sketch yet, and the hopes of turning Downtown L.A. into a 24-hour, walkable, hip destination had recently been dashed on the shoals of a recession, confirming yet again the conventional wisdom that L.A. has no center, after all. And yet there I was on several cool, clear evenings last June, trotting up and down Grand Avenue and over to Spring St. from event to event, in the midst of another recession but witness this time around to an odd mix of young artists, curious tourists, and hardcore Skid Row denizens, among gourmet groceries and flophouse hotels, that felt unlike any urban setting I've spent time in, and certainly unlike the Downtown I remember.

Another mostly bitter fact: Because I was working the conference as a TCG employee, and because my colleague Eliza Bent is the one assigned to write about the conference and surrounding events for American Theatre (look for it in our September issue), I didn't have a single opening in my schedule to actually see any of the theater that was happening as part of Radar L.A. (which sounds like it was awesome), let alone the Hollywood Fringe Festival (which doesn't).

All of which is a disclaimer to make clear that I can't pronounce authoritatively on the state of the L.A.'s theater art. I can, though, record some impressions of, and hopes for/worries about, the state of the discourse about L.A. theater.

I'll first say what should be obvious, but isn't: L.A. creates some of the best theater, is home to some of the best theater artists, anywhere on the globe. I can say that because I've seen the work firsthand, and because I know some of those world-class artists personally (that you've never heard of Jacqueline Wright, Lynn Manning, Shishir Kurup, or Jessica Kubzansky, for starters, is your loss—fuller list provided upon request). All that said, though, does L.A. have a healthy or thriving theater culture? Is it, to use the dreaded phrase, a "theater town"? Is this a question worth asking?

I turn the mic over to Jay MacAdams, in a thoughtful reflection on Bitter Lemons:
It is no coincidence that in cities we all agree to be “theatre towns” like NY and Chicago, the public actually thinks of theatre as a realistic option of things to do on a Saturday night. A theatre town is one in which more than just the theatre practitioners themselves actually think of theatre as a thing to do. A Chicago theatre artist at the TCG conference looked at me with great pity and said he couldn’t even image living in a city where theatre wasn’t generally loved by the masses. I can. I live in L.A.

At the TCG conference I spoke with many theatre people from Chicago, ranging from a Tony Award-winning leader of one of Chicago’s major theatres to individual artists. They all talked of how strong the theatre community is there. About how the large and small theatres work together. About how an individual artist there can ask a favor of an artistic director of a major theatre. Can you imagine how supported you’d feel if you knew all those people at the Ovations and they knew you? If all of those people were a resource for you? If you were part of a close-knit theatre community that you felt really had your back?
For MacAdams, the takeaway is that L.A. needs to strengthen its sense of community, which I know from experience in car-dispersed L.A. is a precious, and all-too-fleeting, commodity. For me, that big-theater/small-theater link smells like a part of the solution, and I noted several examples of this encouraging trend at the conference: The Guthrie has been booking several small Minneapolis companies in its smaller space, creating a new audience for their work; the Arena is doing the same with D.C. groups, and in L.A. so has the Geffen Playhouse. And, I'm especially happy to say, even Center Theatre Group has gotten in on it, with—at last!—a work by the brilliant Burglars of Hamm on its Douglas Stage this coming season. (I glimpsed the opportunity for this kind of collaboration years ago, after witnessing yet another great piece on a tiny L.A. stage and another mediocre import on a big L.A. stage and thinking, What's wrong with this picture?)

MacAdams' takeaway partly realized my biggest hope for the conference in L.A.: a chance for mutual recognition. What I had devoutly hoped was that the scrappy L.A. companies I love, the ones who take the art and the business seriously and do everything right but still struggle to make ends meet and get the word out about their work, would see that companies of all sizes from around the country have exactly the same, or at least strongly analogous, struggles/issues/aspirations—that they're all in the same trade, they share more than they don't, that the divisions between large and small, LORT and SPT, Showcase and 99-seat, are not all that great. (Todd London's inspiring speech about the genuinely radical roots of the regional theater movement was one of many touchstones on this point; would that the folks at the admirably anti-corporate "uninvited" panel, held after and ostensibly in response to the conference, had also heard it.)

I also hoped that like-minded theater pros from around the country would have a similar recognition of peerhood: that they would see that places like Boston Court, Antaeus, PRT, Actors' Gang, NOTE, Open Fist, etc., aren't all that different from Workhouse or Rude Mechs or New Paradise Laboratories or PS 122 or About Face or Cutting Ball, etc. I get the sense that these connections happened—I actually witnessed some of them—but I wonder how strong these impressions were. There is, after all, still the not-small problem of the LA Times consistently missing the point. But maybe this doesn't matter as much as it once did; a number of Minneapolis artists told me, essentially unbidden and independently, that the critics in their town essentially don't matter one way or the other to the health of the town's robust theater scene. I'm not convinced that L.A.'s fragile theater ecology is in the same sturdy boat, but given the persistent out-of-town focus of the LA Times (witness the Tony coverage that competed in avidity and column inches with that of the other Times), L.A. theaters may just have to give up hoping for better coverage from their hometown paper of record.

The non-Times discourse about L.A. theater sprouted all over the place that week and in the aftermath; leaving aside the indignant spluttering about the alleged superiority of the proudly ragtag Hollywood Fringe, the tireless Colin Mitchell has a good roundup of TCG/Radar LA/Fringe reax here. And to bring this back to the community theme, one of the more astute takeaways comes from KCRW's Anthony Byrnes (the comments are interesting, too):
L.A. can use all the community it can get. That's why the "Is L.A. a theatre town?" question has riled so many theatre folks. There've been panels, counter-panels and counter-counter-panels dissecting the question. What's got everyone's knickers in a twist is what theatre people know instinctually -- theatre and place have to be linked. What L.A. theatre hasn't figured out yet -- or maybe figured out collectively -- is how to strengthen the links in a city whose infrastructure and geography conspire against coming together and experiencing art.

To weave theatre into the fabric of LA -- LA theatre has to articulate ‘what it is' and provide the context, the prologue and epilogue, to give plays resonance and create more than an audience -- to build an actual community. What do I mean?

Let's start with space: whether it's the lounge at REDCAT or the beer tent at the Fringe -- those mythical places known as ‘theatre bars' give the audience a way into community. Architecture, even temporary, can provide a car-cultured city a friendly way to transition from being an "I" to being a "we." The communal space of theatre needs to be about more than seats and the dialogue has to be between more than just actors. So for every theatre that doesn't have a lobby bar, why not name a local coffee shop or bar as their official spot for post-play festivities?
Well, there's a reason that Evidence Room's Bart DeLorenzo once deserved the title "King of L.A. Theatre," since with that space he created L.A. theater's last great hangout, at least that I'm aware of. Has there been an equivalent since? Will the LATC lobby/patio ever be that place again? That'll be the question I ask the next time I return to the city I loved first, not wisely but too well.

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